Cu Chi Tunnels, Saigon

During the 1960s, the communist guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam, or Viet Cong, befuddled American troops by seeming to completely vanish into the jungle, leaving not a trace behind. It took the Americans some time to figure out that the Viet Cong were slipping away into complex tunnel systems located beneath the jungle floor. At any given time, thousands of Viet Cong troops would live inside these tunnel systems, only emerging at night to tend crops, find supplies, or attack the Americans. At some points during the war, the Viet Cong would remain underground for months at a time, not even seeing the sun.

One of the largest tunnel systems was the Cu Chi tunnels, running from the outskirts of Saigon (today Ho Chi Minh City) all the way to the Cambodian border. The whole tunnel system is 75 miles in length and has three distinct stories underneath the ground. During the war, the tunnels were continually expanded as fighting dragged on. Today, the tunnels have been reinforced and expanded for western tourists, and are a very popular destination for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City.

History of the Cu Chi Tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels were started long before the American Vietnam War. The Vietnamese first began building the tunnels during the 1940s, when Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces were fighting the Japanese invaders. The tunnels were all dug by hand, one basket of dirt at a time. When the Americans came, the guerrillas once again used the tunnels as underground military bases, moving troops, supplies, and intelligence from place to place without detection.

Tunnel Rats and Ferrets

At first, the Americans declined to explore the tunnels, which were designed for the smaller-framed Vietnamese soldiers. Additionally, the Viet Cong had installed deadly booby traps to ward off the few who would try to invade them. In 1966, the Americans tried to destroy the tunnels by dropping heavy bombs throughout the Cu Chi region, but this was largely unsuccessful.

With large bombs not working, and gas and grenades thrown into tunnel entrances proving to be equally ineffective, the western troops eventually realized they had to train individual soldiers to infiltrate the tunnels. The American, Australian, and New Zealand troops who volunteered for this unsavory job earned the nickname “tunnel rats”, or “ferrets” in the Australian Army.

Besides the booby traps and the enemies lying in wait, the tunnel rats had other things to worry about: inside the tunnels often crawled snakes, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, ants, and bats. Equipped only with a pistol, knife, a flashlight, and a piece of string to find his way out, the tunnel rats crawled through the stale air in the pitch black darkness looking for documents, weapons, and other items from inside the tunnels.

The Tunnels Today

The foreign troops never succeeded in destroying the Viet Cong tunnels, and today the Vietnamese believe they won the war thanks to the ingenious tunnels.

Well-maintained and free of booby traps and poisonous creatures, tour guides lead groups of westerners through the widened tunnels every day - but one has to wonder if this constant promotion of 'war tourism' is healthy for a country where so many of the population have long ago moved on from the war. Its true that most people who have yet to visit Vietnam know only of the war and little else, but surely a visit to Vietnam should be an opportunity to challenge that and show what Vietnam is about in the 21st Century?

In our opinion, unless you have a particular interest in engineering your time is likely better spent in Saigon itself if you wish to learn about life in this country now and where it is headed in the future.